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People don't listen to the president


Matt Bai blames the Democrats' plight in part on a rhetorical failure of the president. The economic crisis, Bai says, was an opportunity to deliver "one of his trademark orations to an anxious public...explaining then that the country had to respond in two related but distinct ways — first by spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the short term to avoid a depression, and then by making a series of large-scale investments over time that would modernize the foundation of the economy."

Jon Chait, sensibly enough, quotes four major speeches where President Obama said exactly those things. And you could of course quote others. The fact that the economic crisis required both short- and long-term measures has been among their major themes since the beginning. They even put it in the name of the stimulus bill: It was called the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." It's just that no one listened.

To read pundits talking about presidential speeches, you'd think there was a statute requiring every American to watch every presidential address and then score a 75 percent or higher on a quiz testing their listening skills. In fact, pretty much no one watches presidential speeches. Obama's 2010 State of the Union got 48 million viewers. His Iraq speech last week grabbed about 29 million of the country. Most of the others speeches get much smaller shares. No one, as far as I can tell, pays attention to the weekly radio address, or the average midday remarks.

And that's fine. It's good that we're not a dictatorship where everyone feels the need to memorize every word the leader utters. But it puts the lie to the idea that the president can simply orate a narrative directly into the American psyche. A small minority -- many of them political junkies who already know what they think -- will occasionally tune in to a particularly momentous address, and they may or may not stay for the whole thing, and they may or may not actually pay attention while they're watching. Somewhat more people will then get a partial summary through news coverage the next day. A week later, most people won't have heard the speech, and the few who did see or read the whole thing will largely have forgotten it. This is, in part, why presidents are worse at persuasion than people think: They do not have the rapt audience that so many assume.

And that doesn't just go for the average voters. In theory, political journalists are paid to pay attention to what the president says. In reality, they ignore most of it. This tends to frustrate White House staff, who put a lot of work into even minor statements like the weekly address only to see them ignored by writers who'd prefer if the same information were whispered into their ears. From the journalist's perspective, of course, this makes some sense: You're trying to find out things other people don't know, and in theory, everyone knows things that are in the speeches. But in reality, since no one is paying attention to the speeches, there's a lot in there that never penetrates into either the public consciousness or the media's thinking, and all White Houses are routinely criticized for not making arguments that they make all the time.

Photo credit: Pete Souza/White House.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 9, 2010; 4:42 PM ET
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I think you're right, it's more that the pundits don't pay attention. They cover the big speeches, the ones on TV with talking heads afterwards, but the rest either they don't listen to or forget right away and go chase the next shiny object.

And the Rightwing noise machine just drums on its anti-Obama message.

Posted by: Mimikatz | September 9, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

People also stop listening when most of what comes out of their mouths is self-serving spin.

Ex. Tim Geithner last night:

"JIM LEHRER: So, the Obama administration shouldn't accept -- or doesn't deserve any blame for what has happened over the last two years to try to dig this out and for things not to have happened quicker?

TIMOTHY GEITHNER: Think of the way -- again, I'm not the right person to ask about politics, Jim, but think about what the dominant debate has been over this country for much of the -- at least the first part in '09, which was that the administration was doing too much for the economy too quickly.

What the president did was absolutely essential. Nothing would have been possible without it. Without the president of the United States and the Federal Reserve acting aggressively to stop an economy in freefall, help put out that financial fire, nothing would have been possible.

Now, you can look back -- and people will look back over time -- to say, could you have found a way politically to do more? It's hard to know the answer to that question now. But you can see the president of the United States acted with extraordinary speed and a lot of political courage, because he knew that all the things necessary to start to arrest that crisis, repair the damage, were going to be politically unpopular, difficult to do, and he was willing to take that risk, as he should have been, because that was the responsible thing to do."

The administration refuses to admit (or even address) either the Republican critique that they have too much government spending and debt, or the progressive critique (ala Paul Krugman) that the stimulus was too small given the size of the demand hole and instead maintains that their policies were just right and are doing a great job, because, hey since that's what they got passed and the President signed it must be a great, if not historic accomplishment. Their story is that the only reason the stimulus bill has not produced the unemployment numbers that they promised/projected when they passed it is because the economy under Bush was so much worse than what they thought, not that their models were wrong. Not their fault. Don't blame them.

People have learned to tune out the BS and spin, and in the end all White Houses succumb to it.

Posted by: jnc4p | September 9, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I agree with a lot of what Ezra says, but I do think that Obama has a couple of big messaging problems that make his job of persuading the public harder.

One is that he steps on his own major themes by wading into minor issues. Health care reform got sidetracked for a while because he remarked on the Henry Louis Gates arrest. More recently, his focus on election-related issues got thrown off because he commented on the Cordoba Center. I'm not trying to disagree with what he said, , and certainly many people are going to find it admirable that he weighed in. But in terms of political message management, they were huge distractions.

Another is that Congressional leaders keep stepping on his ability to hold public attention. There were any number of times when it looked like the health-care reform process was totally out of his control, and the stimulus looks to the public like Congress's creation, not Obama's. More recently, the split on repealing the Bush tax cuts has meant that once again his own party is undercutting him. I think he's probably doing the right thing by trying to focus the public on Boehner as the enemy, but unfortunately Boehner is just too unknown and too seemingly bland (in comparison to someone like Gingrich) to be an interesting punching bag.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 9, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I remember being energized by his inaugural speech Ezra quoted in Chait's post:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift...We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We'll restore science to its rightful place...All this we will do.

But where is the swift and bold action? I don't think it's too late for a bold plan of big action. It will take a lot of courage and he will have lots of stones thrown at him, but the country needs a universal goal to reach, a post-modern new deal with a pr campaign not unlike the tone of his 2008 presidential campaign. He needs to take a risk. A really big one.

Posted by: ania8 | September 9, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

"In fact, pretty much no one watches presidential speeches."

Should I be offended at being called a nobody?


Posted by: pheski | September 9, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

The president is not always -- or even usually -- talking to "America" when he speaks at a public engagement.

The Morning Joe heads were going on and on today about whether the president should have mentioned John Boehner so many times in a speech yesterday and that the rank and file don't know who John Boehner is.

Not a single person on the panel pointed out the fact that the president was speaking in CLEVELAND, where everyone in his audience knows who John Boehner is. It's at least plausible that the president was trying to energize the base -- Ohio Democrats who don't like Ohio Rep. John Boehner -- for the Ohio Senate race.

The same pundits who think the president talks too much or doesn't have a consistent message are missing the fact that the president is not always talking to everyone.

Posted by: Porchland | September 9, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I think pundits yearn for the days of FDR and fireside chats, and compare every president to that, but that was a different time. What has been needed is not a coherent theme, but its constant repetition without Congressional Dems stepping on the message, which occurred with the stimulus, health care and financial reform. But the campaign is an opportunity for that repetition. Part of the problem, too, is the way issues are discussed. Everyone talks about extending the Bush tax cuts. The Bush tax cuts expire on December 31, 2010 PERIOD
Whatever commences on January 1, 2011 will be the Obama tax cuts and the administration and every Dem should say so over and over and over again. Whenever a Dem or pro-admin talking head is asked about the Bush tax cuts, the reponse should be the Bush temporary tax cuts expire by design on December 31, 2010. What we are talking about are the Obama permanent tax cuts for the middle class. Also, remember, what is really being done is setting tax brackets and the portion of the income of the wealthy that falls within the smaller brackets will also have a reduced tax burden from what it would otherwise be upon expiration of the Bush tax cuts. What is not going to be done is to reduce the tax brackets for that portion of income over $250,000. Its also a chance to bring in Bill Clinton and remind everyone that the economy did better in the 90s with those tax brackets for the wealthy than it did with the Bush tax brackets in the 00s(which should be always be called the double zeroes). That can be very helpful in those parts of the country where Clinton is more popular than Obama.

Posted by: gregspolitics | September 9, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Totally disagree w/ Ezra.

I think this administration has been basically bad at crafting a clear consistent narrative. For one thing, they try to pack their 'story' with giveaways to interest groups, and it ends up a muddle. For another, they are technocrats who are uncomfortable with the lingo of 'values', meaning they can't reach 90% of Americans. Finally, Obama has not had focus. You need focus focus focus to get through the noise machine. You need to repeat repeat repeat. You need message discipline.

A narrative is pedagogy. It's an instrument to help voters understand this disaster. Their handling of this has been dismal.

Example: Obama's stmt on the financial crisis, that is was a perfect storm of irresponsibility - putting the sophisticates on Wall Street and the banks in the same boat as the homeowners. So Very Wrong. So Unclear. Bad Pedagogy. Useless as a tool to understand what actually happened. Avoids a meaningful application of common ethical values to the folks with the power.

If you can give examples where Obama did blame the banks, or whatever, it almost doesn't matter - because it shows the inconsistency.

Another bad thing about inconsistency is that it makes the Administration seem like they don't even know what they think - a weakness. Unconvincing.

Reagan was a master of narrative. Obama should really study up, if it's not too late.

Posted by: mminka | September 9, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

No one listens to him because he has nothing positive to add to the discussion. From demonizing his opponents, to showing absolute ignorance in economic matters, to being the most partisan president of the last fifty years, he adds nothing positive to the discussion.

Besides the above, he has no leadership ability whatsoever. He got bills passed (that were unwanted by the majority of Americans) only because he had huge majorities. Not because he convinced anyone other than his own ideolgues that his policies were worth passing.

He is a one term, failed president.

Posted by: FormerDemocrat | September 9, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

I not only agree, I've been saying this for more than a year. I actually do watch presidential speeches (I even watched Bush's), and I've watched most of the town-hall appearance speeches and q and a's, especially during the health care and (less) financial reform debates. I'm not only shocked sometimes when I see (liberal) posters proclaim, time and again, "Obama should talk about X" (he did), but when pundits, even immediately after a speech, seem to have failed to listened to what was said.

There's some kind of cognitive dissonance going on out there. I think maybe it's the result of us all talking to ourselves all the time on the Internet and tweeting into outer space with no one really listening and ourselves not really listening to anyone else. It's not just the president that no one is paying attention to. It's sort of everything except the most shrill, unimportant nonsense that gets any attention. Like Sarah Palin's tweets.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | September 9, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree with mminka entirely. As much as I admire and respect the president (I do a lot), he's badly mistaken when he assumes that people are actually paying attention. Hate to sound cynical about it, but it's a lesson that the GOP has mastered. It's not enough to say it once in a speech - you have to say it again and again and your team has to do the same thing in lockstep ad nauseum.

I know Democrats aren't built that way, but disciplined messaging paves the way for getting your policy implemented. What's happened so far is not the end of the world. I think there's still time and now we see inclination for the Dems to turn the ship around (at least partly) but it could have been so much easier.

Posted by: deanarms | September 9, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Obama is a god-damned waste of space who constantly plays chameleon with his cool-boy dialect that changes with the wind.

Who can agree with him? No one that I know.

He's as dumb and as corrupt as an ace of spades.

Posted by: joesmithdefend | September 9, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I do read what the Charlatan in Chief says but I cannot stand to watch the arrogance, the hubris, the narcissism and actually hear ridicule, undignified and child like, against those who disagree with him pouring forth after Air Force One wings him to yet another love fest with the kool aid drinkers gathered for the occasion by Obama's obsequious sycophants.

Then back to the Hotel Obama where another gala is planned with dancing, singing and merriment while the country suffers from low employment, foreclosures and disasters, natural and otherwise.

Posted by: LETFREEDOMRING2 | September 9, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

"The same pundits who think the president talks too much or doesn't have a consistent message are missing the fact that the president is not always talking to everyone."

I'm going to read the book shortly, but I do believe this is the argument made by Jeffrey Cohen in "Going Local"

Posted by: y2josh_us | September 9, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

Actions (and results) speak louder than words. Voters know by now that with Obama it's "words.......just words......."

Posted by: janet8 | September 9, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

I listen to the President because as a citizen, I seek to be informed. Don't say that people don't listen to him, they do. I also listened to all of our Presidents --Republican and Democratic. But this president, regardless whether I agree or not, has a level of intelligence that hasn't been in the White House for a while. And, a level of intelligence in varous new media. Remember, your number one purpose is to sell papers. And, you will say whatever it takes to sell another paper.

Posted by: frederick2 | September 9, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Of course, Ezra misses the forest for the trees.

Nobody listens to Obama because he never shuts his mouth.

Posted by: krazen1211 | September 9, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Much of his credibility went out the door when he appointed Duncan as Sec. of Ed., and to make matters worse, he has kept the utter dingbat in place. Waste. Spin. Fade out.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 9, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

"...large scale investments that would..modernize the foundation of the economy..." This is an example of the kind of BS that is used to excuse the funding of Pelosi's pet projects, and the lining of many a pocket. What exactly is "the foundation of the economy"? You can't say, because there is no such thing. The economy is so complex that the idea that this neophyte could rebuild it from the ground up is both laughable and dangerous. There's much more than a messaging problem here. There's a problem of basic honesty. The lies have come thick and fast. People know that, although this president does not yet have the reputation for lying that Clinton did.

Posted by: truck1 | September 9, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Actions speak louder than words. Obama said those things - but then caved to republicans. How can you have faith in a guy that won't even fight for his own policies. He counts the seats in the senate and gives up. He should try to stick up for himself for 4 minutes and see what happens.

Posted by: aksunder | September 9, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Obama is a pathological liar. He is such a deficient personality he says what he thinks his then audience wants to hear and then changes it for the next audience. Anyone who believes anything the Won says is as crazy as he is.

Posted by: Reisrrk | September 9, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: mminka | September 9, 2010 6:11 PM |

mminka an interesting observation that while may be true... fails us.

A narrative is a simple thread that 6th graders are able to follow. Regan sold a simple narrative... (the government is evil... cutting taxes raises money) Bush sold a simple narrative (Iraq attacked us and has weapons of mass destruction sic a nuclear weapon and cutting taxes raises money).

If simple minded narratives are the only thing the voter will respond to...then we are doomed.

We have complex problems generated from simple minded narratives (housing is a good investment as US policy) (manufacturing and industrial policy... bad)

If one stops one's education at the level of the simple narrative... you don''t get to the next level... called critical thinking.

Time will tell if the country is capable of critical thinking.

Posted by: mschneid1 | September 9, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I can't stand listening to the BS artist. Whenever I hear his voice on the radio or tube.."off". He's the worst president of my lifetime.

Posted by: Mainer1776 | September 9, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

I know I don't. The empty suited Marxist can't tell me a damn thing..

Posted by: wewintheylose | September 9, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Look, Ezra, the GOP and the media play the same game - prosperity from conflict.

Elections are an IQ test, a measure of just how stupid the snake-oil consumer has become.

The country, sad to say, deserves 'w' - not the true leadership of Obama.

The people of a democracy get the gevernment they deserve.


Posted by: mmax | September 9, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps no one listens to Obama because all he does is campaign, make promises, and then break those promises..... He's nothing more than a used car salesman in a nice suit....

Posted by: WildBill1 | September 9, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

This is hilarious. If you heard one speech by Obama, you've heard them all! Inherited, recovery, jobs saved, etc... (oh yeah, and a super majority was stopped by the evil Republicans!) What a joke. Now that the stint on the View is over maybe he can host the grammy's. This fraud is a lame duck as of November.

Posted by: jpgr1967 | September 9, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Jeez, if Ezra Klein didn't have his Bystander Theory of the Powerless President to explain his idol's inaction, he might actually be forced to confront a more sobering reality - that Obama doesn't care enough about his alleged policy priorities to make more than occasional, desultory speeches about them. Nope, that won't happen. Expect hundreds of more riffs on this theme from Ezra, Matt Y, and Nate Silver to explain how the Dems' looming electoral disaster isn't Obama's fault. Is it a mancrush? I really do wonder.

Posted by: redscott1904 | September 9, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

"Ezra Klein wrote: "No one, as far as I can tell, pays attention to the weekly radio address, or the average midday remarks." and "In theory, political journalists are paid to pay attention to what the president says. In reality, they ignore most of it."


Without a doubt, you have revealed that you are the typical young republican, even still wet behnd the ears, and "assuming" that other Americans are just as lazy and disinterested in their government and country as you are.

Thank God, you are VERY wrong! You have described the ignorant, the gullible, and the party of "NO", but you certainly don't know a single thing about any educated, thinking people. I'm surprised that WaPo still writes you a check when you blow off important assignments like this! You may have taken political science because it was just another easy subject in your simplest of degrees, the Arts, just like Sarah Palin, but the world and politics isn't that easy to blow off.

Posted by: Maerzie | September 9, 2010 9:54 PM | Report abuse

He's also talking to the public the way one would talk to children. "So me and Patty were tryin' to get the car out of the ditch..." Or this one: if I say the sky is blue they say no, it's not. Or this one: Maybe grandma will have to take the little red pain pill. Who talks like this? He badly needs to elevate the level at which he addresses the public and adopt the professorial manner now falsely attributed to him.

Posted by: truck1 | September 9, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

When you prove to be inept and have nothing positive to add, repeatedly, people stop listening. It doesn't matter if you are Barrack Obama or the corrupt editorial writer who started journolist.

Posted by: bassassin | September 10, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Maybe that's the problem--people don't listen because the white house staff puts so much work into them. They're prepared remarks.

I'd bet if we had a president that addressed the nation with candor, regularly, the American people would listen. Most Americans don't listen to politicians because most Americans don't like being lied to. Both sides do it, neither side confesses to the truth.

We'd be so much stronger as a nation if our political parties believed in contributing to the debate (that doesn't exist) so we can reach better solutions than any one party can reach. Unfortunately, the minority party is only interested in regaining power.

This is moreso true with Republicans than Democrats but only because Democrats lack party discipline.

Posted by: will12 | September 10, 2010 1:19 AM | Report abuse

Four speeches is not enough.

To be heard these days you have to pound it in.

The fact that the Republican line is being heard quite well gives the lie to your argument. The difference is that they are relentlessly pressing it through the media every day, not just every once in a while.

Posted by: pj_camp | September 10, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I am unable to listen to President Obama as he just talks nothing but nonsense and divisiveness. His speeches are meaningless and condescending riddled with hatred of the American people and filled with insults toward us, while sprinkled with adulation to himself. His self centeredness and immaturity permeate everything and it has become impossible to listen given he was afforded the presidency. And BTW, Ezra, Mr. JounOlista (the "O" stands for Obama) most of us don't listen to you either except for entertainment and bad example value. We have all learned how to go around yours and that pathetic "newspaper" who employs you and get our news elsewhere. We certainly do not need a filter from a bunch of undereducated punks like yourself and your colleagues.

Posted by: lavistabb | September 10, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

This is very accurate and important post. It seems to me that some of the problem is in this building. Journalists have incentives to report anonymous leaks and not mention (or read ?) stuff on " From the journalist's perspective, of course, this makes some sense: You're trying to find out things other people don't know".

Does this have to be so ? It seems to me that this describes incentives which can and should be changed. Strict (or any) enforcement of rules on granting anonymity would help. Rewards for stories reporting facts in the public record which almost no one knows would help too.

Editors can change incentives. If a story with only anonymous sources who are clearly not whistle blowers is spiked, and a correction of a demonstrably false published claim of fact which was an accurate quote of a lying source were printed, and a story reporting important facts in the public record which most Washington Post readers don't know are put on page A1 could change "journalist's perspective" pretty quick.

My favorite idea -- an public knowledge poll with a Washington Post subscriber sub sample. It would make the Post look good as Post subscribers are much less ignorant than the general public. I bet it would shock the news staff, because Post subscribers would turn out to not know things which reporters don't bother to report.

Facts don't have to be hidden in plain sight. One or two managing editors could change things. But they won't.

Posted by: rjw88 | September 12, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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